The Hill of Crosses | Fashion Italia

The Hill of Crosses | Fashion Italia

About the project

In northern Lithuania, just outside the city of Siauliai, surrounded by the characteristic Lithuanian flatland and little creeks, stands the Kryžių Kalnas or The Hill of Crosses. This small hill is mantled with more than 100,000 crosses in various shapes, sizes and materials. It stands not only as a pilgrimage site for Catholics who come from all over the world to place a cross there, but also as an anthropological site. It provides a mirror of the country’s recent history and it represents a true symbol of faith and a monument to freedom.

Historically and geographically Lithuania represents a natural border between east and west. Traditional-pagan customs and mythology, with many archaic elements, were long preserved. The country was part of the Russian empire for more than a 100 years until the end of the First World War, and then again annexed to the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1990.

The first written report of a cross being erected on the hill dates back to the 19th century when Lithuania was de facto part of Russia. In 1847, an ill man from a nearby village, when facing death, made a vow that he would plant a cross if God would make him recover. As the story goes the man’s health improved and he erected what would become the hill’s first cross. The news of this miracle spread fast and many sickly, unhealthy and other misfortuned people were making vows and erecting crosses soon thereafter.

This event marked the beginning of a new tradition in Lithuania. The tradition expanded with time, encompassing both mass celebration and cross consecration. People also started to bring different signs of faith, such as rosaries, statuettes and pictures of their loved ones.

Things were doomed to change, however, with the Soviet occupation after WWII. Between 1941-1952 many Lithuanians were forced to abandon their homes and were resettled to Siberia, a largely unpopulated area which the Soviet Union wished to inhabit. These forced deportations included also Prof. Dr. Vytenis Rimkus, one of the most prolific personalities of Siauliai. Rimkus a prominent professor, art critic and painter, among other thing, recalls that he himself was forced to “change his place of living” as the Soviets would call the resettlement. He and his family lost all their land and spent 10 years in the taiga doing various agricultural works. With most of the neighboring residents relocated, the hill went through a period of abandonment.

In 1956, a few years later after the death of Stalin, people were allowed to go back home. Henceforth new crosses started appearing on the hill. Their inscriptions were telling tales of suffering and loss due to the deportations. When the Lithuanian Communist Party got wind of these anti-Soviet messages it declared the hill to be locus non gratus. In the spring of 1961 action was taken and all 2179 crosses were demolished: wooden crosses were burnt, metal ones disposed of in scrap warehouses, those made of stone were buried. From now on, the hill had to be rigorously guarded during the day.

Nonetheless, at night new crosses appeared with even more anti-Soviet inscriptions. During the following years, from 1973 to 1975, the Party made three more attempts to get rid of the hill by using bulldozers. This “bulldozer atheism” only further motivated the believers, eventually leading to the organization of strictly banned pious processions. Bishop Eugenijus Bartulis tells the story of Priest Algirdas Mocius who in 1979 joined one of the processions barefoot carrying a heavy cross for 8 km.

Another unsuccessful albeit inventive attempt included building a pond around the hill in order to turn it into an island. Despite this almost 50 year-long “war of crosses” the Hill of Crosses survived with heroic resistance, becoming a symbol of freedom and independence,

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, and in 1993 with the visit of Pope John Paul II the hill officially gained worldwide fame.

Today the hill stands for Lithuanian spiritual culture. With its ever increasing number of crosses it represents an “autogenerative” folk creation. Artistic crosses by famous Lithuanian sculptors stand out alongside modest and simple crosses as well as more kitsch ones. In the face of their spiritual and votive essence, however, all the different crosses are rendered equal.


Marco Gehlhar

Marco Gehlhar was born in Munich, Germany. Raised from a German mother and an Italian father, both photographers, he grew up between Florence and Berlin. Through the years, he developed his own esthetic vocabulary curating photographic exhibitions and working together with great photographers such as Kurt Markus and directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn. Today his personal projects focus on such topics as religious faith and the eerie.

Stefania Zanetti

Stefania Zanetti is a photographer based in Milan and she was born in Trento, Italy. She studied Design specializing with a Master in Eco-social Design, willing to combine her passion for projects with that of psychology. Today she works as a freelance photographer, she teaches Photography for Design at NABA, and collaborates with magazines, also as an Editor. She develops various personal projects mostly characterized by the research on human behavior and emotions.

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